writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Dresden Modern

Palucca School Dresden
Bancroft Studio
UC Berkeley
January 28, 2004

by Rita Felciano
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano

On a Bay Area stop over during their California tour, the eight members of the graduating class of the seventy-eight year old Palucca School of Dresden brought a program that both intrigued and disappointed.

Gret Palucca (1902-1993), an early student of Mary Wigman’s, was known for a light and mirthful performing style and for being a strong proponent of dance as pure movement. She was a strong technician—her jumps were legendary--and also a survivor. Her school made it through the Nazi and the Soviet eras.

These dancers were excellently trained; their fluidity and sense of physical abandon belying the rigorous training that makes possible the appearance of natural ease. Large scale, with clean attacks and an appetite for space, they also danced delicately and communicated a nuanced expressiveness whether in a comic, dramatic or lyrical mode.

The two part program presented first a number of pieces by German expressionists, and, in the second half, choreography by their descendents, all of them trained at the Palucca school. The first half, with works by Mary Wigman, Gret Palucca, Harald Kreutzberg, Marianne Vogelsang and Dore Hoyer, proved to be by far the more rewarding. Clearly the school produces good, well rounded dancers, but from what was seen on this line up, the quality of their choreographers raises questions.

The program opened with an homage to probably the most famous fragment of German expressionism (Ausdruckstanz), Wigman’s Witch Dance. Choreographer and faculty member Holger Bay based this interpretation on the extant film fragment and contemporary descriptions. He also commissioned a new percussion score (played on tape) by Boris Bell. Convincingly performed by Anna Skathshkova, the dance developed from the initial gestures: the clawed fingers support, the slow but forceful pushing apart of the knees even as the soles of the feet snapped together. Surprisingly—maybe in part because of the absence of theater lighting in the studio environment—the dance didn’t look threatening or dark. More than anything it captured with mystery. There was something macabre about the way this legless shape scooted along the floor. What impressed most was the power that periodically exploded from what looked like a partial body. The side of the feet banged the floor with utmost force; the fingers—as if detached from the rest of the body-- clawed down some invisible wall, and the flattened mask had pulled out every contour of the torso.

Maria Zimmermann performed Palucca’s lovely Serenata, a piece from 1932 which Palucca was seen performing in a film on her, shown at Stanford in conjunction with the live performance, the day after the Berkeley appearance. It’s a piece, coincidentally which introduced John Neumeier, a life long friend and admirer, to Palucca’s work. The score, an excerpt form Isaac Albéniz’ Suite Espagnole, was performed by Friedemann Stolte who also accompanied other dances.

The airy Serenata opened with an illusion of going back and forward simultaneously as one arm pushed slowly ahead and the rest of the body rocked back and forth. Stretched up and space embracing, the dancer seemed to travel the air around her, punctuating the liquid patterns with moments of quiet intensity in a slow descent to the ground, one leg stretching behind her or displaying herself in semi profile, arms overhead as if holding a pot overhead. Designed to convey a sense of spontaneous response to the music, the piece also bore echoes of women’s gymnastics of the time and even, the much rejected Isadora Duncan. Serenata ended with a simple assertive gesture. The dancer put her flattened hands on her thighs. They looked like punctuation marks.

Kreutzberg’s Phantastic Waltz (to Chopin) was a treasure of wit, drama and an undercurrent of melancholy. Excellently performed by Dennis Dietrich, in a golden Satyr-like mask, a big black cape and a floppy hat covering long white curls, his outfit was completed with a cane, white spats and gloves. Barely five minutes long, the piece embodied a whole life time as a young gad about town aged into an old man who after death returned to recommence the life cycle.

Kreutzberg punctuated waltz passages, which demanded fast, delicately deployed skipping feet, with short, concentrated images. Many of them involved the cane who became a beloved partner, a support, a dagger, a guide post. At one point the dancer looked as if he were performing a quadrille all by himself. In a neat theatrical slight of hand towards the end, Dietrich, after being stabbed, turned his back to us. When he turned around his face was a blank, white death mask. But this was no dance of death—Kreutzberg’s most famous piece—but a dance of life. The golden mask went back on.

A small but densely built piece, Kreutzberg made deft use of the waltz’s twirling circle patterns both thematically and as a structural device. Since the piece was choreographed in 1941—he was allowed to perform during the third Reich as long as he made work that was easily accessible—one wonders whether maybe the piece’s wild, at times almost desperate circle patterns didn’t contain a note of subversiveness.

Marianne Vogelsang—a student of Palucca’s and for a short period co-director of Wigman’s Berlin studio—was represented by one of three Preludes, set to sections from Bach’s "The Well-tempered Piano." Helene Sophie Wawer performed this musically responsive, clearly designed—large patterns of overlapping circles with long sliding steps—piece sensitively. But in choreographic terms, Vogelsang’s seemed the most bland of those early pioneer dancer/choreographers.

The two excerpts from Dore Hoyer’s Affectos Humanos (five in total), ‘Hate’ (Julia Kathriner) and ‘Love’ (Mareike Franz) showed just how fine a choreographer Hoyer was. Using a chisel and a steady hand, to carving out human passions, these spare, stripped down portraits stood out for the restraint with which they articulated their material. They were intense and distilled, with not a gesture or a step wasted. Yet the passions portrayed couldn’t have been clearer.

The abrupt movements in ‘Hate,’ seemed to tear the dancer’s body apart. This was hate as destruction of self. The energy constantly moved in contrary directions. Hands slowly clawed thighs during an otherwise perfect stasis. Arms pushed down even as the body rose. The head snapped to the chest when the dancer shot up like rocket.

‘Love’ on the other hand moved through one long arc. The dancer, kneeling in profile, slowly glided across the stage. The hands forming bird-like beaks, began a courting dance. The arms turned around each other, flew off in different directions only to meet up again. These freely searching movements contrasted with the dancer’s steady glide along a linear trajectory that felt like the passing of time. When the finger tips finally met in a kiss, they pursued a free flowing palm-to-palm trajectory until the inevitable separation. The last image felt almost like a death when the right hand began to slide down the left arm. Life draining out of what had been a communion.

The program’s second half presented an half-hour Hommage a Palucca, choreographed by ten Palucca alumni. The two to three minute pieces were tied together by loosely designed framing movements. The choreographers were Anke Glasow, Mario Heinemann, Dietmar Seyffert, Irina Pauls, Bey, Silvana Schroeder, Raymond Hilbert, Arila Siegert, Mario Schroeder and Birgit Scherzer.

Maybe, since this homage was designed for the 100th anniversary celebrations of Palucca’s death, the choreographers decided to as “light hearted” as many of Palucca’s dances apparently were. So several of them attempted comedy, a notoriously difficult genre to bring off in dance. One has to hope that cultural differences in perception and not mediocre quality accounted for what looked like extremely heavy-handed and simple-minded senses of humor. Other works were so bland to be non-descript. The final ensemble number, Déjà-vu, pulled together by faculty member Hanne Wandke, incorporated fragments of the just seen works into Palucca’s Serenata as if to say that these are all Palucca’s children. How pleased the honoree would have been with this homage by her offsprings has to remain a matter of speculation.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 5
2 February, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano




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